Famed photojournalist David Rubinger, called “the photographer of the nation” by statesman Shimon Peres, died Wednesday. He was 92 years old.
Born Dietrich Rubinger in Vienna in 1924, he was a man of charm and conviviality with a slight European accent and a raconteur’s gift for relating his adventures.
He came to pre-state Israel in 1939 when he was 15 years old, escaping World War II on a youth immigration program. Rubinger’s mother died in Belarus in 1942 (according to his Geni profile, a genealogy app available online). His father, who had been sent to the Dachau concentration camp, escaped to England and survived the war.
Rubinger spent three years living and working on Kibbutz Beit Zera, on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When he turned 18, he volunteered in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, serving in Africa and Europe.
He met his future wife, Anni, a distant cousin, in Germany after the war, when he was still in uniform and she was a concentration camp survivor. He offered her a marriage of convenience in order to help her obtain a visa to leave Europe. But their marriage lasted 50 years, until her death in 2000, although Rubinger admitted in later years that he wasn’t always a faithful husband.
It was while on leave in Paris during the war that Rubinger was given a camera by a French girlfriend, and he discovered how much he enjoyed photography. His first professional photo was of Jewish youths climbing a British tank to celebrate the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan for Palestine, which created the Jewish state.
Back in Israel, Rubinger began freelancing for local papers, including HaOlam Hazeh, Yedioth Ahronoth and later, the Jerusalem Post.
He was hired by Time magazine in 1954 after capturing one of his first and best-known photographs, of a nun searching for a patient’s set of dentures that had fallen out a hospital window and over the Green Line into what was then Jordanian territory.
Rubinger’s career with Time lasted until he was well into his 80s.
He was the only photographer to gain access to the inner sanctum of the Knesset cafeteria, often permitted to capture Israel’s early leaders in their most private moments. He was the Knesset’s official photographer for 30 years, and the only photographer to have his work on permanent display in the Israeli parliament.
Rubinger was a presence at the Knesset until recently, and was noted by reporters when, his trusty Leicaflex camera in hand, he covered the swearing-in of the government in May 2015.
“David Rubinger: Eye Witness,” a documentary made by filmmaker Micha Shagrir in 2000, includes footage of Rubinger in the Knesset, photographing politicians who called him “Rubi.”
Rubinger says in the film that he remembers the fledgling parliament when it was a warm, engaging atmosphere, “not what it is now.”
He is shown straightening some of his own photographs on the wall, his place in the country’s history as firmly fixed as any of the political leaders he photographed.
It was those relationships, and perhaps Rubinger’s innate charm, that bought him access to the more personal side of Israel’s political leaders. He captured Golda Meir feeding her granddaughter, along with quiet moments between Yitzhak and Lea Rabin.
Ariel Sharon famously said, “I trust Rubinger even though I know he doesn’t vote for me.”
As a photojournalist, many of Rubinger’s assignments revolved around the war of attrition and security issues that the state grappled with in its fledgling years. He was afforded tremendous access by the army to capture crucial moments during wars and battles, and granted use of some of his photos to the Israel Defense Forces.
In 1967, during the Six Day War, Rubinger caught the image of three paratroopers standing in silent awe in front of the recaptured Western Wall, a photograph that became an icon in the history of State of Israel.
That photo has been reenacted several times with the three soldiers in place, and Rubinger often recounted the story of how he captured that moment.
He had been down in the Sinai Peninsula when he got word about the conquering of the Western Wall. He got a ride on an army helicopter and picked up his car in Beersheba, asking a soldier to drive for him because he was too tired to drive himself.
When he reached the Old City and the Western Wall, he lay down in the narrow space that then existed between it and nearby buildings, and caught several paratroopers walking by. Later, he caught a picture of soldiers hoisting then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren on their shoulders.
When he got home and began developing the film, Rubinger thought it was the Goren shot that best captured the historic moment. It was his wife, Anni, peering over his shoulder, who pointed out that the photo of the three soldiers was more emotional.
Rubinger would later criticize the famed shot as less than perfect, pointing out the cut-off faces surrounding the soldiers, but it was the emotion in their faces that drew people to the photograph.
His unfettered access included flying above Jerusalem right after the war to take pictures of the Old City. According to one apocryphal story, while Rubinger was up in the air, he convinced the pilots to turn around and do another loop around the city in order to get the right shot.
Rubinger gathered his years of photography in Israel in the 2008 book “My Lens — Sixty Years as a Photojournalist,” by Abbeville Press, which featured a foreword by then-president Peres, and held a traveling exhibition of his photos through Europe, US and Asia.
In 1997, he won the Israel Prize for his contribution to the country.
After Anni Rubinger died in 2000, Rubinger continued to host people in their Jerusalem garden, often for afternoon tea or cocktails, in the particularly genteel European manner that he never lost in all his years in Israel.
At age 78, he met Ziona Spivak, who was his beloved partner until she was murdered in 2004 by a former gardener, Mohammad Mahmoud Sabarna, who demanded cash and killed her with a kitchen knife.
Rubinger is survived by two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.